We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Sarah Cardwell on ur-texts and Andrew Davies · 25 July 07

Dear Harriet,

Before going further with either the Palliser films or Austen movies, I’d like to explain Sarah Cardwell’s theory (in her Adaptation Revisited) about a ur-text at the heart of successive adaptations of the same text & to summarize her book, Andrew Davies (it’s on his screenplays and the films made from these).

On classic book film adaptations, Cardwell makes a strong case for regarding TV screenplays & productions as works of art in themselves, which can be studied as reflecting the screenplay writer in the case of TV screenplays. She does this by describing the close similarities between the films of the samescreenplay writer, no matter what the eponymous book they are named after.

She also argues that in TV we may attribute a film centrally to a screenplay writer because the writer there is a much more important and powerful presence in the making of a film. In movies for cinemas, she says, the director is the central controlling force. She says this goes back to the origin of TV people in radio work, the lack of money and lack of sophisticated camera work and location where TV began. The word mattered and screenplay writers would not be changed over a course of a production while directors would.

This is precisely the opposite of the case in films for movies where
until recently the screenplay writer had trouble getting his name on the credits and they were often changed or overridden during production, and in the cutting films can be savagely changed.

A corollary: she suggests that there are adaptors who produce better or more interesting work when they write an adaptation than an original screenplay. She does not present this negatively (they needed the “great” writer’s source to enable them) but rather because they are compelled to regard the story world and characters in a more distanced and controlled manner, and can can combine their own veins of thought and feeling with very different ones to produce a more interesting amalgam. The writer’s work becomes subtler and style, tone, gesture and implication are resorted to for self-expression. I really do feel this is true of Weldon, that the screenplays she did as adaptation are in some ways superior to her uncontrolled satiric work.In a way one could regard this as a poet trying to write within a restrictive form, say a sonnet.

I endorse this view absolutely now that I’ve started really to go through the 1972 Emma and 1974 Pallisers painstakingly taking down all the words and paying attention to all the stills. The Pallisers is a work of Raven in TV movie grammar; much of what we are asked to be amused by would have sickened Trollope even if it’s playing off Trollope’s books as a perpetual source. Austen would not have disliked Constanduros and Glenister’s Emma but she would have recognized the continual ceaseless differences and the emotional approach, particularly the centering on two characters, Mr Knightley and Emma, makes a different work of art.

Nonetheless, the argument is problematical though because you only see this through comparison and the new work continually feeds off the old. While the 1972 Emma continually different, it also follows closely the bare bones outline of Austen’s book, and lifts the general outlines of the characters, scenes, ideas for scenes, and lines almost in the order they appear in Austen’s Emma. How else explain how in utterly different adaptations of Emma as long as some faithfulness to Austen’s text is kept, even if the characterization of and actress enacting Austen’s conceptions are different, you can find exactly parallel stances in their faces even in different scenes.

In the 1972 BBC faithful adaptation of Emma Fiona Walker plays Mrs Elton as an aggressive highly sexualized easily angry woman and Ania Martin, Jane Fairfax as a strained vulnerable self-possessed young woman electrified into self-protective rigidity by Frank Churchill’s exploitative teasing of her and their clandestine engagement. Here they are at the Crown Inn, supporting one another:

And at Donwell Abbey.

Yet there often seems little difference between this pair in this movie and in key scenes of the 1996 Miramax analogous film adaptation of Emma where Juliet Stevenson plays Mrs Elton as an somewhat resentful but also witty and essentially self-assured woman and Polly Walker as a Jane openly in love with a man hurting her:

In these scenes they are the left-out women, rivals to the Princess Emma who triumphs over them publicly every time. There are stills of the 1996 BBC faithful adaptation of Emma where Lucy Robinson is a petty sexless Mrs Elton and Olivia Williams, an imperturbable calm Jane Fairfax which repeat this very same archetypal stance.

The solution here is Cardwell’s theory of a ur-text. She postulates that what controls the thinking and creativity of the adaptor and viewer of a film adaptation is the unacknowledged idea of an “ur-text:”

“the first telling of a story might be a source of inspiration for other retellings (adaptations), but that which is really being adapted precedes, and is apparent within (but not reducible to) the solid textual source and its adaptations … [this] ur-text or work consists primarily of the major narrative functions [pivotal events] which distinguish the story”

to which I’ll add archetypal situations which underlie the character’s relationships to one another. It’s like Malory’s adaptation of 13th century French romances or 18th century imitations of classical poems. I find this persuasive if hard to prove.

Since Davies continues to produce the screenplays for classic book film adaptations, with (according to Cardwell) the avowed aim of blotting out a previous film adaptation, his work cannot be ignored in any study of classic book film adaptations. In previous blogs on the Austen films, I’ve outlined the characteristics of his films before as well as summarized some findings of others about typical features in his films:

Davies in general (across all the novels he adapts): shows a detached, sympathetic irony towards the more sentimental or melodramatic characters; shows great sympathy towards the amoral and less than admirable protagonists and uses these to reflect on the cruelties and double standards of the world which judges them; is usually amused and amusing and wherever he cans lightens a text and finally opts for conventional values when it comes to sex, marriage, and money-making; adds literal action wherever possible, and tries to take advantage of particular actor’s strengths.

I can add this tonight from my more recent viewing and a draft of a paper I wrote towards a book on the Austen films:

Davies persistently turns material that was centered on a heroine or presents a woman’s point of view into material centered on a hero from a male point of view.

Recently his Northanger Abbey was a case in point. That he had the heroine burn Mysteries of Udolpho and revel in titillating (to a man, it’s about a man feeling a woman up) passages from the Monk (disliked in NA) is an unashamed reversal and even (for me) painful to see. The film had Catherine as intensely remorseful for having dared to think for herself, and the moving depiction of inner change and trauma was given to Henry Tilney. I liked the new character of Tilney, but this is not a film by a woman.

Wives and Daughters by Andrew Davies is deeply moving and is a story at core about Squire Hamley (played magnificently by Michael Gambon) conflicts with his son, Osborne Hamlet (Tom Hollander). All the movies I’ve seen by Davies thus far are Oedipal at the core: we have a male either in conflict with a father or earning his place in society by vigorous actions, from the 1995 P&P where the central character is Darcy and Darcy’s transformation to the 2007 NA where J.J. Feilds as Henry Tilney is a deeply hurt hurt character who seeks solace and renewal through the innocent Catherine (in this they are types very like Jane Eyre and Rochester’s relationship in Bronte’s book).

Now to turn to Cardwell’s book on Davies: she herself is deeply in sympathy with Davies’s point of view. She likes his distancing, enjoys the caricature and for her his portraits of Becky Sharp and Moll Flanders are truthful and important pictures of female types. She seems not to see Davies’s limitations or if she does, prefers his choices. So Davies’s Moll Flander and his Becky (in his Vanity Fair) as performer is just Cardwell’s cup of tea:

“Becky is defined as a woman who pays a series of different roles in accordance with her changing circumstances. She performs for both the women and (particularly) the men around her, in order to extract from them what she desires” (p. 134)

Cardwell particularly likes his “powerful, witty, cunning female characters” and thinks his portraits of “strong” women are among his most important elements in this films. I find his definition of strength very narrow and find as much cruel caricature of women as men, and think the centers of his films are men, and an assumed definition of “manliness” as macho male socialability.

She says he’s continually “fundamentally liberal, realistic and optimistic.” I grant her he’s optimistic and middle of the road mainstream, and would say movies are not realistic, a truth which can be seen as you read her own accounting of what she sees in Davies’s work and values. She is very much in favor of his The Way We Live Now which she regards as a sort of mocking critique of the older film adaptations. She likes its dissonance, its techniques, music, costumes and make-up are chosen so as to be a bizarre recreation from masquerade terms of what we see in the idyllic sentimental older adaptations. She likes the Daniel Deronda for its lack of subtle words and broad characterizations, its reliance on the visua. She does not regard this as popularization and vulgarization but a non-elitist approach.

She appears to be bored by his adaptations of Austen and his Wives and Daughters (except of course according to her we have these strong women in them.)

In her book on Davies, Cardwell genuine treats all the movies she analyses as works in their own right and really has observed the scenes in front of her and described the techniques of each film; if you cannot always agree with her inferences, you feel you have gotten close to the movie. She shows that the genre the person is working in places limitations on his work because the other members of the film crew shape the final product and deeply affect the form and achievements of the program. These analyses occur in the chapter on Davies’s adaptations of non-classic works or minor works by famous writers, e.g., his Signalman, an adaptation of Dickens’s ghost story (where by the way neither Davies or Cardwell seems to observe the story may be read as one about suicide).

An insight which informs her analyses is that Davies “excells in adapting the work of others” because “he is compelled to regard” the story world and “its characters in a more detached manner” and produced a blending of his own vision and that of the author, works “within the framework laid down by the novel’s author and yet simultaneously expresses something of his own work view; this is often achieved by more subtle means than hin his earlier, non-adapted work—through style, tone, voice, gesture, and implication, rather than simply through words or blatant actions.” Thus his work provides a parallel to Fay Weldon’s 1979 P&P: the control of Austen’s material and voice has enabled her to rise above her more typical exaggerated caricatures and lose herself utterly in a shared created world.

What I like here is Cardwell is showing that the adaptation process itself is valuable and produces masterpieces. This reminds me of defenses of translation as high creative work. As in her theory of a ur-text, her treatment of adaptations seems to bring to mind intelligent criticisms and insights into the process of translation.

Finally, a brief resume of her chapter on Davies’ original work: A Very Peculiar Practice. Produced in 1988 it is prophetic and argues passionately on behalf of keeping the humanities and other subjects not directly towards getting that job, making that buck (quid or pound). In the mini-series Davies shows the basic principles of liberal humanist education undermined by Thatcher’s policies which meant to “turn higher education into a competition-led business.” Many of the new subjects are shown to be without content, this disguised by various jargons and a conservative political correctness. Cardwell says it was much admired, if quietly. I wrote the above as a comment to a Nick’s The Moving Toyshop about aspects of the political scene in Britain today.

Cardwell (like several other women writers on film of late, e.g. Sarah Kozloff) has written some remarkably insightful film studies, partly because she (like these others) departs from traditional ideas of originality and provenance and what’s of value in content. And one of the extra delights of Cardwell’s Adaptation Revisited is its detailed analysis is of Brideshead Revisited. Need I say I’ve bought myself a (used as usual I can’t do them new) DVD of BR and am waiting for it to arrive. It will be my fourth or fifth viewing since I first saw it in the later 1970s?


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. Nick offered an important caveat:

    “Ellen wrote…

    ‘More generally as a principle and attitude she shows that for TV films, the screenplay writer is a much more important and powerful presence in the making of a film while in movies, the director is the central controlling force. So it is really a Davies’ production. She says this goes back to the origin of TV people in radio work, the lack of money and lack of sophisticated camera work and location where TV began. The word mattered and screenplay writers would not be changed over a course of a production while directors would.

    Well that is a fascinating explanation for something which I was very aware of but had not really understood.

    ‘This is precisely the opposite of the case in films for movies where
    until recently the screenplay writer had trouble getting his name on the credits and they were often changed or overridden during production, and in the cutting films can be savagely changed.

    I do think there are important caveats to be entered here in respect of both the Director (in film) and Writer (in television) auteur theories however (they are caveats rather than contradictions :)). In both cases the role of the Producer as the person who controls the expenditure is crucial. Of course there are cases where the person is the same – although I believe that the trend in this direction as far as television is concerned is fairly recent? (examples such as Steven
    Bochco and David E Kelley in the US and in the UK Debbie Horsfield
    for instance – all in the past ten years or so – I don’t know the first example of this happening in television?). Andrew Davies is a writer. Of course his influence as the sole writer (and many
    television and film projects work with collaborative – or otherwise :) – teams of writers) is immense but I am not clear as to his involvement with casting, location, direction, editing and so on?

    The convenience of the auteur theory for critics is obvious and it is clearly true for many movie directors, but I think it does have to be constantlytested against the realities of commercial production which are ever-present for both Hollywood and television. The Producer can never be written out :).

    Elinor    Jul 26, 12:07am    #
  2. Nick writes:

    “In both cases the role of the Producer as the person who controls the expenditure is crucial.”

    Yes, absolutely. I was reporting what Cardwell say, not necessarily commenting or qualifying (except when I did so explicitly and in passing—as when I said she wrote deliberately positively of Davies or she would never get another interview by a living adaptor or Davies himself).

    A case in point is the Palliser series I have been reporting and commenting on for half a year and mean to do the same again. The producer is Martin Lisemore; he also produced the 1972 BBC Emma, perhaps the 1981 BBC Sense and Sensbility and certainly all the Palliser films. His mark can be seen in the emphasis on language, use of irony rather than high emotionalisms, drawing-room comedy point of view and high seriousness. Sue Birtwistle’s productions of Davies’s scripts (1995 P&P, 1996 Emma) differs from Flynn and Thomson (2007 NA) and strikingly.

    I went to a conference in Princeton with my husband Jim last year and it was about intellectual property rights since the advent of the Net; two of the session were on film adaptations and original films. I learned more there and things were said than in dozens of articles. Three of the people were film-makers.

    The Producer sets budget priorities, he or she decides who to hire to hire the cast, is there with the director and camera man a great deal. We were told by two different people that the person called the producer is often a convention and both are central.

    Cardwell makes her argument because she wants to regard everything as “Davies” for her convenience and to make her argument; yet I note that she sticks a lot to the script and how the script is realized— always quoting the script. It is true (at least I’ve come across this statement) that the director has much less prestige in TV than film. All the more for paying attention to the producer, and that not as much energy or time is given to recutting after the film is made (too much money). It’s said repeatedly this comes from the origins of TV in radio and the fact that famous directors go for films. (Ironically you can make more money in TV; so people hunger for prestige.) The script in radio was central and held things together and this carried over until recently; even now not as much money is spent on camera work, locations and so on; the Austen film of the recent 3 that spent money on camera work and location was Persuasion; it was the most “movie-like.” In all three cases we got the script writer and producer talking (as well as director).

    In films script writers are changed a lot; the script editor is more central because of the cutting afterwards.

    Had you noticed, Nick, that I have begun to say “Raven and his team,” or the Raven team because I see I was wrong to talk just about the director and script writer.

    And let’s add the production designer and costumer (Jenny Bevan is a favorite in the BBC world), and cinematographer.

    All that said, Davies and other writers come through. I am persuaded that I can study the 1981 BBC S&S to shed light on Constanduros in the 1972 BBC Emma even if both have different directors and perhaps producers.

    I’ve been studying and reading The Constant Gardener, film, book, shooting script and know that the origin of the project was Simon Channing-Williams, producer and he was a central moving figure in all that’s done, no matter how much people natter on about Mereilles. Mereilles was brought in after the project got started and did reverse the perspective of what was filmed as central: Africa and the vulnerable powerless played a strong role in the film. Nonetheless, the script (by Jeffrey Caine) is so uncannily close to LeCarre’s book (even when the words have been rewritten and much added) I think it was LeCarre who wrote some of it

    A complicated fascinating business.

    Elinor    Jul 26, 12:08am    #

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